When Teaching Becomes Learning

Hallo semuanya. Nama saya Snehaa. Aku dari Canada!!

My first introduction was one of the ongoing jokes some of my students in Bandung, Indonesia had about me. Clad in a long cotton dress with Indian patterns, and dangling jhumkas, I would proudly say that I was Canadian, with ready responses to any protests or confused looks. Six weeks later, we had to say our goodbyes: laughingly/tearfully saying “buku bagus” or “kita berhasil!!” or “kerja bagus!!”. My students and I did not share fluencies in the same language. So it was the only way we could express that we would miss each other dearly.

This summer, I volunteered as an amateur English language teacher/mentor in orphanages in Indonesia. Our team of volunteers independently created lesson plans, worksheets and activities for our assigned group of teenage students. My six weeks there followed a steep learning curve because of several challenging, yet enthralling, hurdles. However, being accustomed to cultures in multiple Asian countries, I quickly got attached to the dedicated bunch of misfits: the rowdiest ones being the most sincere.

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Although my team wanted to primarily teach English, I was obstinate about incorporating active learning and self-confidence by assigning students self-reflection writing assignments in Bahasa Indonesia and including Indonesian translations in their worksheets. I would attempt to evoke cultural pride with pre-lesson advisories about how English was only circumstantially an important language in the world and that it in no-way equaled any intelligence that Bahasa Indonesia or Sunda could not offer them. I wanted my lessons to be inspiring and stimulating, rather than unpurposed and boring.

Studying in Canada taught me to bring light to my privileges. However, Indonesia taught me just how enlightenment is not a golden ticket to invincibility from all distorted thinking. I consciously expected to learn a great deal from them but what I felt while translating their written answers one night, highlighted my own delusions of grandeur. I can never forget the surprise, the sense of resignation from my teacher/volunteer title, exhilaration, pride and regret I felt, while translating the answers that I especially asked them to write in Bahasa Indonesia. An intense yearning to better understand the intricacies of their thoughts rose within me; it was pure guilt. I did not want to underestimate them again. I wondered by I was so blown away (to the point I felt was an insult to them) when I wanted to empower them in the first place? It was a curious thought: was it because they were orphans or because they struggled to speak simple English? It seemed that I was a victim of my own warnings. English was a norm in my everyday life — it was how I had always demonstrated my intelligence at work and school. It was humbling for me to realize that whatever lessons I had for the students, were in fact for me: either directly or in the form of their reactions.

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This main realization I had during my time in Indonesia, influenced the lessons and presentations I delivered in the following weeks. Often to their amusement, I became the bule (foreigner) volunteer in class who would determinedly employ new Indonesian words everyday while teaching. Truly, interacting with them allowed me to dabble (or more so, submerge myself) into life-changing ideas of self-exploration. Every written answer the students wrote — about their hopes and dreams, their love for Indonesia and their dedications — inspired me to be proud of my own quirks and accomplishments. For this and many other reasons, I will always be grateful to them.

OK semuanya…. terima kasih! Sampai jumpa…?

- Snehaa Suresh

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